Norwegians Force Mushers to Rethink Iditarod Strategy

The 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race is the quintessential Alaska institution. But for the past four years, Norwegians have been dominating the race. Alaskan mushers are being forced to adjust their strategies, and are even rethinking long-held notions about training and dog breeding. Gabriel Spitzer of the Alaska Public Radio Network reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins this weekend in Anchorage. The thousand-mile race up to Nome is quintessentially Alaskan, but for the past few years it's belonged not so much to the Alaskans, but to the Norwegians. The Alaska Public Radio Network's Gabriel Spitzer has the report.

GABRIEL SPITZER reporting:

The crowd began assembling at dusk last year on a frozen slew in Unalakleet, a village on the Bearing Sea coast. This is one of about two dozen checkpoints for Iditarod mushers, passing through on their way to the finish line in Nome. Here they stop to rest and eat between grueling runs that can last 12 hours.

Practically the whole village turns out to greet the first musher in. That was Norwegian Robert Sorlie, pulled by a dozen dogs.

Unidentified Female #1: Look, he got Norwegian flag on his collar.

Unidentified Female #2: Yeah.

SPITZER: People recognized Sorlie from two years earlier when he was the first foreigner to win the Iditarod. The following year another Norwegian led nearly the whole race, but wound up third after his lead dog died.

(Soundbite of dog howling)

SPITZER: Next in to Unalakleet was Martin Buser, Alaskan celebrity and four time Iditarod champion. As he was pulling in, Sorlie was just heading back out onto the trail with a two hour lead. It was becoming clear that the Norwegians had figured out how to beat the Alaskan veterans in their own race. Sorlie's lead had Martin Buser and other Alaskan mushers questioning some tried and true strategies.

Mr. MARTIN BUSER (Iditarod Racer, Alaska): We might have been breeding too fast for the dog teams for the last 15 years or so.

SPITZER: Buser said the Alaskans' have been training dogs that run 12 to 14 miles per hour, but need to rest at checkpoints about the same amount of time as they run. The Norwegians had a different tack. They were using dogs that run a little bit slower, but needed less rest. And it seemed to be working.

Mr. BUSER: It's the old tortoise and the hare story and, you know, we've got to either slow down our rabbits a little bit or breed speedier tortoises.

SPITZER: Robert Sorlie would go on to win last year's race. His nephew Bjornar Andersen took fourth after a spectacular push at the end. Even with a team of second string dogs it was the best performance ever by an Iditarod rookie. And he pledged to return. This year, with Andersen looking like the man to beat, even established Alaskan champs are studying the Norwegians and rethinking their strategies. Like three time winner Jeff King.

Mr. JEFF KING (Iditarod Champion): They have broke down some preconceived training barriers that were like the four minute mile to us, sacred ground not to be disturbed.

SPITZER: American mushers found that sacred ground by tweaking the dogs run/rest schedules over the years, trading stamina for speed. The strategy of fast dogs and lots of rest had whittled the race down from three weeks to nine or ten days. Then in swooped the Norwegians, bucking the Iditarod Orthodoxy. Jeff King says he was skeptical, but this year he's finally made the change to a team that runs more than it rests.

Mr. KING: I expect anyone following the race seriously as a competitor will have made the same thing, because it's as plan as the sun coming up tomorrow.

SPITZER: Another Norwegian innovation is that the team shares almost everything. The same pool of dogs, the same brains working out strategy and logistics. Perennial contender DeeDee Jonrowe, who's preparing for her 25th Iditarod, says team Norway benefits from pooling its resources.

Ms. DEEDEE JONROWE (Iditarod Contender): They've been able to make really a national team. It's as if they are in the Olympics with the best Norwegian team and we are competing with our individual kennels.

SPITZER: Of course Alaska is still the home turf. Fifty-one of 84 teams signed up this year are from Alaska. Jeff King says the locals aren't ready to give anything away.

Mr. KING: No, Alaska's the dog capital of the world, and if you want to compete from Norway or Sweden you'd better pool your resources, because they're not the center of the mushing universe, we are.

SPITZER: If the Alaskans stage a come back this year it may be tricks picked up from the Norwegians that put them back on top. For NPR News I'm Gabriel Spitzer in Anchorage.

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